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Haynes Used Car Buying Guide

Five Questions that could save you a bundle

Particularly when dealing with private parties (who usually have only one car for you to look at), you'll want to make sure a vehicle is worth your time before you make the drive. Always call first and talk to the owner/driver--other people in the house may note be able to answer all of your questions.

1. Why are you selling the vehicle? You're probably not interested, but a person selling the vehicle because of mechanical problems will often stumble on this question, alerting you to look at the vehicle very carefully.

2. How many miles are on the odometer? Generally speaking, multiply the year age of the vehicle by 15,000. If the vehicle has more miles on it than the product of this equation, the vehicle is usually considered to have high mileage.

3. What condition is the vehicle in? Actually, this should be a series of questions like "how's the body and paint?", "how's the interior?", etc. You'll find the seller's opinion will often differ greatly from yours once you see the vehicle, but you can often discover problems like accident damage. This may save you a trip if you're looking for an unmolested vehicle.

4. What work has been done on the vehicle recently? Sellers often "prepare" a vehicle for sale by performing work they've been meaning to do for a while. This is usually an innocent attempt to make the vehicle look more appealing, but be a bit wary if major work has just been completed. For example, if the engine has just been overhauled, make sure the engine is checked out thoroughly. It's rare, but owners occasionally try to get rid of a vehicle that's showing signs of slipshod workmanship on a major repair.

5. What options does it have? This will actually be a series of questions pertaining to your needs (it's a good idea to make a list before you start making calls). For example, if you need an automatic transmission or air conditioning, make sure you ask whether the vehicle has these options. Ask which engine the vehicle has. A friend may have told you of the great fuel economy of his car, but the same model with a different engine option may not do so well. Always be sure you're making an apples-to-apples comparison.

Find the lemon before you go picking

Let's face it--some car models have been more prone to problems than others. And even within the same model, some model years are better than others. So how can you research this in your search for a reliable used car? One way is to look into Recalls and Service Bulletins. Your own federal government, through the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, has a wealth of information on safety recalls and technical bulletins sorted by vehicle make and model. Go to their website (www.NHTSA.gov) and punch in the models you are thinking about buying.


Recalls are repairs suggested by automobile manufacturers and the NHTSA to ensure the safety or mechanical integrity of your automobile. These repairs are necessitated by some factory defect or oversight, and, as such, they are done free of charge by any new-car dealership authorized to sell the type of car you own. Since a used car owner is usually unaware of a recall, you can find out whether a recall exists by searching the website or by calling NHTSA at 1-800-424-9393. 


Technical service bulletins can also give a clue about the reliability of a car model. Every year the various automakers send hundreds of documents called Technical Service Bulletins (TSBs) to the service departments of new-car dealerships. TSBs provide the dealership mechanics with information about specific, common problems with particular car or truck models, engine types, transmission types, etc. Keep in mind that most TSBs are for very minor issues and they usually apply to only a portion of the models (e.g. only those with a certain engine). But if you are trying to decide among two or three models, the total number and nature of TSBs might sway you towards one model...or away from another.


Another worthwhile government website, this one operated by the EPA, is www.fueleconomy.com . Here you can get all sorts of useful data, including detailed information on gas mileage figures for all makes and models. There's even an easy-to-use feature that allows you to compare vehicles to determine which one will give the best MPG and what your total annual fuel costs will be.

Four clues to major problems and "no deal"

Shopping for a used car is tough enough, what with all your choices of makes, models, mileage, color, but your biggest concern is getting ripped-off. Most used cars are sold "as-is", with no warranty and no safety net for making a bad decision. Having a certified mechanic inspect the vehicle is always the best protection, but here are a few things you can -and should- check on your own to uncover some potentially deal-breaking problems.


Have the owner open the hood and then look for the oil fill cap. This is where fresh engine oil is added to the engine and your best opportunity to evaluate the inner workings of the engine. With the engine off and cool (don't burn yourself), twist off the cap and look at the underside. If it looks like a chocolate milkshake, coolant has leaked into the engine and mixed with the oil. This means expensive repair work and maybe a complete overhaul.




While you have the hood open, look carefully at the steel crossmember (it runs across the car at the radiator) and the inside of the fenders. A vehicle that has been repaired from an accident may have tell-tale signs in these areas. Look for mismatched paint or paint overspray along the fenders. At the crossmember, look for new steel welded in place. The photos here show a vehicle that was in a wreck and repaired with less-than-quality workmanship. Note how the left (undamaged side) of the crossmember is smooth and welding is neat and clean. The steel on the other side is distorted and the welds are uneven and sloppy.




When inspecting a used car, start it up and then walk to the rear and observe the exhaust. Dark smoke (black or bluish in color) may indicate an internal engine problem. White smoke on a warm day can possibly mean coolant leaking into the engine, usually through a blown head gasket. However, if the outside temperature is cold, the white smoke could be nothing more than steam (like the condensation of your breath in very cold weather).



Fluid leaks may indicate a very minor problem or a really expensive fix. Look under the vehicle where it is normally parked. After a test drive, give the vehicle a few minutes and then look around the engine and under the vehicle again. Other than clear water dripping from the air conditioner components as condensation, all other leaks should be checked out by a mechanic.



Is a Check Engine warning light a big deal?


If you're test driving a used car and notice the dashboard warning "Check Engine" or "Service Engine Soon" illuminated, you should know right away that the vehicle needs to be inspected by a professional mechanic. It means that the on-board computer has found a problem which requires attention.


But it does not necessarily mean the vehicle should be discarded from your shopping list. Often, the fix for problems like this is relatively easy and inexpensive. Your local mechanic will have a small hand-held "scanner" that plugs into the computer to read out the stored "codes". Armed with this info he can determine if the problem is an expensive fuel injection system or simply a loose wire. Be sure to get a written estimate from the mechanic before proceeding with your used car purchase.


One more thing to keep in mind: many states have a mandatory smog inspection for used cars changing hands and a vehicle with an illuminated "Check Engine" light will usually be an automatic Fail.



If you want to learn more about buying a used car, check out the Haynes Used Car Buying Guide Techbook (#10440). Just click on the Haynes Automotive Techbook section in the left column of the site and find "Used Car Buying Guide". Or, do a Keyword search in the right column for "Used Car Buying Guide".




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